Southampton picked up what was just their third win of the season when they beat West Bromwich Albion by a goal to nil at St Mary’s Stadium. The victory was their first since mid September when they defeated an ailing Crystal Palace side, and since then they’ve gone on an uninspiring run of defeats and draws.
However, despite their lack of victories the club are performing well when it comes to the statistics. They’re fourth in the Premier League for possession in games, and their average of 58 per cent puts them just behind Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, and ahead of the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea for this particular stat.
They’re fifth in the Premier League for total shots, with 138, and total passes, with 4,851, and have the fifth-most touches of the ball in the division, with 6,623. But they’re also fourth in the league when it comes to total shots from outside the box, suggesting that a few more of these efforts need to come from areas closer to the goal.
One more statistic which shows their potential is expected goals. They’re seventh in the league for expected goals (xG), and are the second team in the league in terms of underperformance when comparing xG to actual goals.
All of this data suggests that the system of play Mauricio Pellegrino is implementing down on the South Coast is beginning to work, but the players aren’t quite able to provide the cutting edge in attack when it’s required. It could also be that the style of play is allowing the team to dominate games in some ways, but when the side reach a certain area of the pitch they are still being stifled, either by the system itself or by their own ability to carry out the final part of the plan.
Even their goal in the win against West Brom came thanks to a piece of individual skill rather than a flowing team move which involved the use of the possession they’ve managed to enjoy in games so far this season.
Substitute Sofiane Boufal carried the ball half the length of the pitch before slotting past Ben Foster, but there may have been a slight tweak to the system from Pellegrino which allowed the side create more chances closer to the goal, and provide that extra space for midfielders like Boufal to run into, as the Moroccan international did here.
So far this season the Saints have operated primarily in a 4-2-3-1 formation which could occasionally be classed as a 4-3-3. Regardless of the label given to this shape, it contains only one striker.
For the past two games, however, the club have used two recognised strikers at the head of the attack in an attempt to convert this possession dominance into something more substantial on the scoreboard.
Against Newcastle the side lined up in something similar to their 4-2-3-1, but used Manolo Gabbiadini as the central attacking player in the three. The Italian started from an advanced position and dropped back rather than starting in midfield and moving forward, and this gave the shape more of a 4-4-2 feel.
However, whilst still dominating the game with 62 per cent possession, Southampton only managed two shots on goal. Luckily, they both found the back of the net, but at the other end they were conceding plenty of shots on the counter attack and Rafa Benítez’s side were able to score two of their own.
For the West Brom game Pellegrino made another slight change to this system, using a 4-4-2 diamond, and his side were more balanced as a result.
Oriel Romeu held a deep position, only bursting forward through the middle when there were no counter-attacking threats to deal with. Mario Lemina moved from a station alongside Romeu into more advanced positions, acting in a box-to-box-role, while Steven Davis played the role of a more attacking central midfield playmaker from the left. Dušan Tadić tarted at the tip of the diamond, with a strike pairing of Gabbiadini and Shane Long in front of him.
The possession remained, but the shots on target increased to six, and the image above shows the dominance in terms of shots and xG. The defence also looked more solid with protection from the three midfielders in front of them when West Brom were on the attack, and this change in tactics is justified by the low xG of the opposition.
Even when the substitutions were made the formation stayed roughly the same, with Boufal replacing Tadić, and Charlie Austin replacing Long. Both strikers would drop deep to help build the play, which meant that often the player furthest forward was attacking midfielder Tadić.
If the club are able to carry on improving with their current group of players, they might be able to improve even further by adding more players of Lemina’s ilk in future transfer windows.
Pellegrino has a plan, and though there have been bumps in the road it is now beginning to work. If he is backed in the transfer window, then improving each area of this system could see even more joy in front of goal and a rise up the table in the second half of the season.